April 19, 1995
The 25th anniversary of Earth Day has come and gone, and our calendars can now begin counting down the five years remaining in the twentieth century. By the time you read this column, the events will be over and cleaned up. The obligatory retrospective analyses will be written, and maybe even read. The US 104th Congress will be continuing its attempts to unravel the environmental progress of the last 25 years. And the logic of biology continues its persistent effort to gain a seat at the table of commerce.
What does it all mean for business, beyond the value of marketing “environmentally friendly” images, and sometimes products?
The interpretation of events is often subject to the preconceptions of the interpreter. The answer to the familiar question “Is the glass half empty or half full?” depends on whether you ask it of an optimist or a pessimist. In the realm of the environment, the most realistic–and perhaps most useful–answer to the question “Are things getting better, or getting worse?” seems to be “Both. And likely to get moreso.”
We have seen catastrophes, and we are likely to see more. The fast-acting ones–like Chernobyl–make a sudden and dramatic impression, raise awareness, and without constant pressure settle back in to business as usual. (Five years after Chernobyl, Ukraine is still “planning” to shut down the remaining reactor.) The slow-acting catastrophes–climate change, species loss, cancer–are of course more dangerous. Like the minute hand of a clock we don’t see them moving, just that they have moved; unlike the minute hand of a clock, they are not easy to turn back.
We have seen impressive, sometimes surprising progress. US manufacturers have reduced their releases of toxic chemicals by 43 percent in the last seven years. Energy efficiency, and the broader concept of ecoefficiency have increasingly taken hold as sound business strategies. Environmental technologies have become a significant economic driver, a larger industry in the U.S. economy than either computers or plastics, and generating new jobs at more than double the average national rate (according to a study just released by the National Commission for Employment Policy.
There are still substantial threats ahead. Biodiversity–the family heirloom of life on earth–faces continuing erosion. Reversal of climate change–a decades long process at best–remains at the mercy of international political compromise. The inevitable, and essential, economic development of the world’s poorer nations threatens to exacerbate these threats and others, unless their development be based on efficient, modern “do more with less” technologies rather than hand-me-down “more with more” technologies from the industrial boneyard of the West.
Fortunately, we have an informed public–informed by a personal “knowing” deeper than scientific or political debate–strongly committed to meeting those threats, the recent US elections notwithstanding. (It may be easy for Mr. Gingrich to forget that the Republican’s 52% share of the 34% of Americans who voted don’t accurately represent the US population, but not wise. Support for environmental protection remains deep and strong, though it remains to be seen whether it can be effectively organized and focused.)
Business has stepped forward as an unexpected environmental leader in many domains. The reasons are varied: the push of environmental regulation; the pull of consumer demand; the intrinsic logic of efficiency (which works best the more accurately prices reflect biological reality). And in a few cases, executives who choose to serve their moral as well as fiduciary responsibilities.
The record is far from perfect of course. Some companies do as little as they can, waiting to be dragged forward by regulation or legal action. Some seek safe haven in states or countries with weaker environmental standards. Some actively push the roll-back of environmental protection in the name of property rights (as though property rights belonged only to the generator of pollution, not its recipients). But a growing number see their business self-interest and their biological self-interest pointing in the same direction.
The “Republican Revolution,” though led by the party of business, ironically is moving against this forward thinking business leadership in its take-no-prisoners assault on environmental regulation. We’re likely to see the unusual spectacle of corporate leaders trooping down to Capitol Hill to defend environmental policies and regulations, streamlined to be sure, as a critical element of international trading competitiveness.
Perhaps somewhere along the way the Republican leaders will take a moment to ponder where their own water will come from if they succeed in weakening the Safe Water Drinking Act, or what air their children will breathe without the protections of the Clean Air Act. Perhaps somewhere along the way we’ll all remember that we’re not one person when we run our companies or go to work, another person when we pay our taxes, a different person when we vote, and yet another when we’re home with our family. Our actions in one domain affect our lives each of the others, as they affect the lives of our families and those of people we’ve never met, all of us tenants in common of the biosphere.
Buckminster Fuller used to observe that if our planet were modeled as a 12 inch diameter stainless steel sphere, the height of the tallest mountains and the depth of the deepest ocean trenches would be less–to scale–than the roughness of that polished steel surface. If you fogged that polished surface with your breath, the fog would be deeper than our deepest oceans–and far deeper than the thin film of life that sustains us on this chuck of rock hurtling through space.
We easily forgot how precarious our grip is. That is why ecologists often observe, using a baseball metaphor, that “nature always bats last.” And why the next twenty-five years will show whether we learn to find prosperity in harmony with that thin film of life that sustains us, or at its expense–and our own.